Northern Ireland news

1920 local government elections recalled in new publication

Sinn Féin and nationalist councillors swept to power in county councils throughout Ireland in May and June 1920.
Seamus McKinney

NEW research has revealed how local government elections at the height of the War of Independence helped shape partition in Ireland.

Republican landslides were recorded across Ireland in elections to borough and town councils in January 1920 and repeated in county council elections in May and June the same year.

They were the first local government polls in six years due to the Second World War and the first to extend the franchise to women (over the age of 30) and use proportional representation as a voting system in Ireland.

The elections returned some prominent figures in Irish politics, including Cork mayor Terence McCurtain (allegedly assassinated by RIC members in May 1920) and his successor, Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in October that year.

The importance of the 1920 contests has been highlighted in the booklet Democracy and Change: Centenary of the 1920 Local Elections in Ireland by the Republic’s Department of Local Government.

Following Sinn Féin’s landslide victory in the 1918 general election, the British government attempted to prevent the party’s further advance in 1920 with the introduction of the single transferable vote. However, the tactic backfired dramatically.

The booklet notes: “With a high turnout and some violent clashes occurring such as in Cork, the results saw Sinn Féin win 560 seats, Labour 394, Unionists 355, Home Rulers 238, Independents 161 and municipal reformers 108” (in the January polls).

This resulted in 10 of the 12 northern urban councils coming under nationalist/Sinn Féin control, including Derry, Strabane, Omagh and Armagh. It was only in Belfast that unionists gained control of the city council.

In May/June, Sinn Féin's victory was also "comprehensive".

"The party took control of 27 out of 33 county councils and, in Fermanagh and Tyrone, it combined with nationalists to form majorities. The Freeman’s Journal declared: ‘The defeat of Carsonism in Tyrone is one of the most important incidents of the elections'.”

As well as the county council successes, Sinn Féin took control of 36 of Ulster’s 55 rural districts.

The booklet also highlights the birth of new election tactics in the summer polls against the backdrop of the War of Independence.

“The War of Independence had gathered pace since January and the summer ballots took place in the context of greater militarisation.

"The Irish Republican Army was more prominent in electioneering throughout the country, including in the guarding of polling stations which drew the charge of intimidation from unionists.

"Referring to the elections in Dublin, The Irish Times (8 June) noted that Sinn Féin was the only party to organise transport for its candidates and voters and from an early hour motor cars and other vehicles flying the tricolour brought in voters.”

The booklet is available in English and Irish at www.donegalcoco.ie/culture/archives/publications/.

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